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Excerpts change periodically.
It was late afternoon. Even with a large floppy hat and her vintage Jackie O shades, she could feel the horrid power of the sun on her face and neck. She hurried to the waiting car, and sat behind tinted windows. The air was running full blast and there was a large black blanket for her in the back seat. Most of the supplies were left on the plane, which would remain under guard through the night.
The capital looked little improved since she’d last seen it, despite the international aid that had poured in. Good old Sainte Trinité, as corrupt and inefficient as ever. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
With nothing to see, she lay down on the seat with the blanket protecting her. She sat up when the car slowed down. They’d reached the small gatehouse. The guard opened the gate, and they pulled up a short driveway to the entrance. Her key creaked, but worked. The driver helped her with her luggage and left.
The housekeeper was always warned when guests were coming. She kept the place clean and well-stocked, but stayed far away from the visitors and did not live in. There was no sign of others of her kind. Alphonsine would have the place to herself. There were still a couple of hours till dusk. She found her way to the darkest bedroom and lay down, feeling the wideness of the bed and an acute sense of loneliness.
The simplicity of her surroundings reminded her of the abbey, and her thoughts turned again to Ana. There was a Portuguese word her friend had taught her, saudade. It was a feeling, a longing for someone or something that is absent. She hadn’t seen Ana since shortly before the Great War when she’d made her first trip back to the continent. The plan had been for her to visit points north of France, though some did not approve of her visiting Europe at all while any mortal who might have seen Marie Duplessis was yet alive. Ana hadn’t judged her decision to return, but accepted her once more with great warmth and tact. It was Ana more than anyone who taught her death could be a gift, every feast a sacrament, that the hunt could be even more exciting when the prey lacked awareness of its aim, and that she must always strive to overcome her desire to inflict pain.
As she fell back into the day sleep, she decided with certainty she would look for a child – a hopeless hungry one unlikely to survive to adulthood. It would not only pay homage to her teacher, but serve as a symbol to bridge the distance of time and space between them.
When she rose that evening, she thought of how best to dress. Her white skin would stand out, and very few people dared walk in the capital after dark. She put on jeans and a blouse. She tied back her hair, wore no make-up, and threw on a pair of clear glasses she kept to tone down her appearance. She thought she might pass herself off as an aide worker or a missionary, and just to add to that illusion, she put on a large gold cross, though she knew it might attract thieves.
She found what she sought on the street behind the central square, or rather the girl found her, came right up and tapped her on the leg, then took her hand to her mouth in the universal gesture of hunger. Ana would have taken this as a sign. She came to you of her own free will. It was her destiny.
“What is your name, my sweet?”
The child seemed shocked then delighted to hear the question in the island’s Creole. She was not an especially pretty girl, her unkempt hair an uneven mess of kink, her clothes filthy, her dark skin sallow. There were marks on her arms that might have been some sort of rash, but she had a beautiful smile and large dark amber eyes.
“I am Marie-Thérèse. Please mademoiselle, I am very hungry.”
“Of course,” Alphonsine replied. She took out a bag of chips she had brought for just such an occasion, and handed it to the girl who eagerly opened it with her teeth.
Watching her tear into them, Alphonsine recalled a time she’d been hungry and a stranger bought her a similar treat – fresh pomme frites from a street vendor. Strange, he hadn’t wanted anything in return though he told her she was beautiful. Years later, he became a great friend though never anything more.
The chips disappeared in seconds, and the girl was eager to tell the stranger her story. Her mother was dead. She had last been in the care of a woman she referred to as her “Auntie” but was more likely someone who had bought her for a servant from her father. It was a common arrangement on the island. Auntie had two children of her own, who unlike Marie-Thérèse, went to school, ate until their bellies were full, and slept on beds with pillows made of feathers. They bullied her mercilessly. She was on her way home from the market when the quake hit. The house was flattened, and she took it as her opportunity to run.
“But I have been hiding from the demons,” she said, her eyes wide with fear.
“Yes. They steal the kidneys and the heart and sell them to the Americans,” the child told her. The way she said “Americans” she made them sound worse than the demons themselves.
Alphonsine smiled. “But I’m an American, and I would never harm you.”
The girl laughed. She didn’t believe Alphonsine could possibly be an American.
“I have an idea,” Alphonsine said, “Why don’t you come with me to my house? It’s right around the corner. I can make you a nice supper, and give you a bath, and you can even sleep on a bed.”
The girl looked at her uncertainly, as though she couldn’t decide whether or not the proposal had been a joke. When she realized she was serious, she hugged her. Alphonsine scooped her prize in her arms and carried her back to the house.
There was a wall surrounding the residence, and a guard booth, but the guard was asleep, drunk on the rum Alphonsine had brought him. She had also “suggested” he drink it till he passed out.
Instructions had been left with the housekeeper for several contingencies. In the refrigerator, they found the requested chicken, plucked and quartered, ready for the frying pan.
Marie-Thérèse’s eyes went wide. “This is for me?”
“Of course it is. But would you like a mango shake first?”
The child could not remember how long it had been since she’d even had a mango, much less a shake, and was thrilled to watch the ice-cubes whirr in the blender with the fresh milk and mango slices. She gulped the liquid down quickly, as Alphonsine set the chicken and plantains over a low flame.
“There is one thing we must do before we eat,” Alphonsine announced.
“Thank the Lord Jesus?” The girl asked.
Alphonsine laughed. “Well, yes, I suppose you should say grace, but I meant you must have a bath.” She showed the girl to the bathroom, and started the tub.
There was so much dirt on the poor thing’s skin it turned the water dark. As Alphonsine ran her fingers through the unkempt hair, she was surprised not to find lice, just grime and dust.
Marie-Thérèse had been made to clean herself by her “auntie,” but could recall no one helping her before.
“I’m sure you just don’t remember. I’m sure your sweet mama, before she died, bathed you every night.”
She was worried Alphonsine would get wet.
“It’s okay. Water won’t kill me.”
Once Marie-Thérèse was convinced there was no problem, she started splashing on purpose, and soon the two of them were engaged in a water fight.
After some time Alphonsine said, “The water is getting cold. And look! Your fingers are like raisins.”
The girl looked at the back of her hands with astonishment. “This happens sometimes when I scrub Auntie’s floor,” she said.
“Aren’t you glad you’ll never have to scrub anyone’s floor again?”
“What do you mean, mademoiselle?”
“I told you to call me Camille.”
“Yes, Mademoiselle Camille. Why won’t I ever have to scrub a floor?”
“Because I’m going to take you to America. And you’re going to be my daughter, and I promise you there won’t be demons.”
The naked little thing hugged her, and Alphonsine lifted her from the tub. Smelling her clean neck, she was tempted to take her blood right then, but resisted. It must be done right, she reminded herself, and they had hours to play.
“You’re soaked, Mademoiselle Camille.”
“So I am,” she said, as she helped dry the girl off. “We’ll both need to change. Shall we both be princesses?”
Marie-Thérèse smiled, but clearly had no idea what Alphonsine was talking about. Alphonsine had a suitcase full of children’s clothes and toys she was going to hand out personally and on video at the orphanage. From this, she took out a princess costume, complete with tiara.
She had only a simple black dress for herself, but it would do for the evening. The child asked to wear a pair of her heels. Despite the toilet paper they stuffed into the toes, Marie-Thérèse couldn’t walk in the things. This sent both of them into peals of laughter. Alphonsine looked through the donations in her case and found a pair of glittery slippers that fit her better.
She wasn’t sure what to do about the girl’s hair, but managed to form some tight braids, approximating cornrows. When all was done, Marie-Thérèse was quite transformed. Looking into a mirror she said, “Mon Deus, I am a Princess.”
“Of course you are ma chère.”
The girl hugged her again and said, “I love you.”
And though she knew, from her own bitter experience, how easy it was to obtain the love of a child who had no one to give it to, it made her whole being quake with happiness to hear the words.
“Darling, if you can’t call me Camille, you must call me manman.”
“Manman,” the child cried out the Creole word for mother. She repeated it dancing and spinning till she finally dropped to the ground.
They set out the plates. The little one greedily ate the chicken, while Alphonsine nibbled on some plantains.
Afterward there was more play and more laughter. Alphonsine took out a couple of dolls.
“May I keep this one? After tonight?” Marie-Thérèse asked shyly.
“Of course. Always and forever,” Alphonsine told her.
Finally, the child was winding down, and the adult’s hunger was becoming stronger. While part of her wished this could go on, she was growing impatient. She could hear the child’s beating heart, the very high-pitched sound of blood flowing through the girl’s veins. She imagined how that blood would taste, its unmatched sweetness and purity, the way the first sip would warm her throat and the heat would spread throughout her body, and finally there’d be an all-encompassing silence once the tiny heart had stopped.
She’d want to stay with her the rest of the night, snuggle next to the body as it cooled. But it would hardly be enough to satisfy. She’d need to find more. This morsel was only an appetizer, but a prized one.
She helped the girl change into a pair of pajamas with feet. This too was new to her and made her laugh.
Marie-Thérèse was allowed to choose from among the children’s books, which were in French and English. “But I can’t read,” she said.
“It’s not important. I shall read to you. Just choose the one with the prettiest pictures.”
She settled on some awful American book, part of a series. Alphonsine improvised, creating an entirely new scenario as she translated it into broken Creole. The girl fell asleep almost too quickly, which made Alphonsine sad. As much as she had longed for this moment, now she was dreading it. She wished it could have gone on longer, wished she’d had weeks to enjoy Marie-Thérèse, to savor her.
“You are sleeping very soundly,” she said, not bothering to nick her. Marie-Thérèse trusted her completely. Her voice alone would work. She began to describe a simple dream. The poor orphan had a mama and papa who loved her and always took care of her. She had a white pony and a room full of dolls and storybooks.
Alphonsine was lying down, by the little girl’s side. Smelling her hair. Whispering in her ear as her senses searched the spot into which she would release her venom and begin to drink. Then something salty reached her tongue. It took her a moment to recognize her own tears. She’d never reacted that way before to prey. It startled her.
She turned away, feeling her fangs recede. She could almost see Dashiell standing by the bed – watching them. Would she ever have been able to do this to him? And if not, why not? How was he different from Marie-Thérèse?
“How stupid I’m being,” she told herself.
Dashiell was special. He had an important destiny. This girl had nothing but an enchanting laugh.
And then it came to her, the thought that had been on the edge of her consciousness since that flash of memory when the Marie-Thérèse grabbed at the potato chips. When she came to Paris, before that even, she would have been ideal prey. There would have been no one to miss or mourn her. Her beauty was not unique. A thousand girls had that. None could have predicted that in just a few years she would become Marie Duplessis, the queen of the demimonde.
Who knew what this child might become if she lived through the night?
But if it had been her destiny to live, she never would have found her way here. The thought came to her in Ana’s voice.
Yet, what if this child had a fate they could not see or know?
What was the point of this internal argument? Why could she not shut off her mind? Blood was life. She needed blood to survive. It might as well be that child’s, but the idea nagged at her – she could have been that child.
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